Will "The Dark Knight" marketing change after Heath Ledger's death?

by Eric Melin on January 24, 2008

in Blogs

I know this is lame to post the whole damn article, but I really found this interesting. Heath Ledger was a talented actor (“Brokeback Mountain,” “Monster’s Ball”) , and its very tragic that he died so young.

But since that he is also the Joker in the upcoming “The Dark Knight,” and an entire marketing campaign has been built around him, it may be distasteful to see some of this stuff– at least while the news is so fresh. At the least, seeing the film will be weird, because he’ll no longer be just the “bad guy” we we want to hate. He’ll be Heath Ledger. Anyway, here’s the article, originally posted at the WallStreetJournal.com:

Will Marketing Change After Star’s Death?

By MARSHALL CROOK and PETER SANDERS
January 24, 2008; Page B1

For nearly nine months, Internet-savvy movie fans have been tantalized by a Web marketing campaign to slowly unveil the new look for one of Hollywood’s most popular characters: the Joker, nemesis to Batman and a central figure in the next installment of the Warner Bros. film franchise based on the Caped Crusader.

Tuesday, however, Warner Bros.’ careful online campaign, which still has months left to run, took an unexpected turn when Heath Ledger, the 28-year-old actor playing the Joker in “The Dark Knight,” was found dead in a New York apartment.

[Heath Ledger as the Joker]
Heath Ledger as the Joker in ‘The Dark Knight’

The tragedy will force the studio to ponder how or whether to continue the elaborate Web campaign that was already generating buzz for one of its most important movie properties. That question is made even trickier by the fact that the campaign, to date, has been largely built around Mr. Ledger’s Joker, even though Christian Bale returns as Batman. The Joker character became film legend in an earlier incarnation of the Batman series, when Jack Nicholson won praise for his deranged take on the comic-book villain. Mr. Ledger’s eagerly anticipated portrayal is, if anything, said to take the character to a new level of violence and intensity that is darker than Mr. Nicholson’s Joker.

A spokeswoman for Warner Bros., a unit of Time Warner Inc., said the marketing campaign was continuing but declined to comment further.

The viral campaign of “The Dark Knight” began to appear out of nowhere in May. That’s when an inaugural political advertisement for Harvey Dent, aspiring Gotham City district attorney, appeared online without mentioning any movie. IBelieveinHarveyDent.com featured a photo of the candidate and was “Paid for by Friends of Harvey Dent.” By following clues sprinkled on Internet message boards, fans then were led to a second site: IBelieveinHarveyDentToo.com. The page was the same, but Mr. Dent’s picture was defaced with blackened eyes and a ghastly red grin. (The page has since changed, but visitors can scroll down to see a hidden message.)

The site was a fake, the candidate photos were of actor Aaron Eckhart, and the Web pages were the beginning of an elaborate attempt to stir up interest among fans. Throughout the summer and fall of 2007, the campaign served up a labyrinthine adventure set in an alternate-reality Gotham City. The drive of the campaign was the slow reveal of the Joker as played by Mr. Ledger. The actor’s death puts into question the future of the Joker-centric marketing push for “The Dark Knight” and whether Warner Bros. will change tactics rather than risk a negative public response.

heath ledger joker dark knight posterAt the defaced Harvey Dent Web page, fans could get a code that allowed them to remove a piece of the overlying image. As more fans participated, Mr. Dent disappeared pixel by pixel, displaying the first official photo of Mr. Ledger’s Joker: a grim white face appearing out of the darkness with dead eyes and an erratic, ruby smile carved into his cheeks.

With a playful but psychotic tone, the Joker character kept movie fanboys guessing for months. In late October, he requested that they participate in a nationwide scavenger hunt. Fans took photos of letter-shaped landmarks all over the country. The letters formed a message: “The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules,” which then dissolved into a fresh Joker image. In November, the Joker encouraged fans to submit images of them and friends painted with white faces and red smiles. Each game resulted in a new image of the Joker or a new site with a new quest. Fans were updated on viral developments by editors of popular film news sites like www.superherohype.com and aintitcool.com, among others.

In late fall, fictional newspaper the Gotham Times launched its Web site, www.thegothamtimes.com, where fans could read up on Batman’s exploits or Mr. Dent’s war on corruption. Readers then discovered a second newspaper, the HaHaHa Times, at www.thehahahatimes.com, which was a frightening version of the original paper with edits made by the Joker himself.

In December, the campaign subsided when “The Dark Knight” prologue was screened before IMAX showings of “I Am Legend” and the first full-length trailer for “The Dark Knight” made its debut. Both featured footage unveiling Mr. Ledger’s performance.

Such campaigns aren’t new, of course. “The Blair Witch Project” in 1999 established that young movie fans could be enticed by online games that hold their interest for months before a film’s release. Online campaigns have now become a standard feature of the marketing for certain films, especially comic-book fare like Batman.

Mr. Ledger isn’t featured just in the online campaign. The movie’s current poster includes a ghostly and haunting image of Mr. Ledger in his Joker getup, with the tag line “Why So Serious?” scrawled in red. In recent interviews, Mr. Ledger said the Joker was the most-fun role he had ever undertaken but was taxing physically and emotionally.

The movie’s viral campaign is the work of 42 Entertainment, a Pasadena, Calif., independent producer of alternate-reality multimedia environments. The goal was to create a multiplatform story bridging the 2005 film — which cost $150 million to produce and sold about $370 million of tickets world-wide — and its sequel.

Untimely deaths have interrupted movie marketing before — from James Dean’s 1955 death before “Giant” was released, to the accidental shooting of Brandon Lee on the set of “The Crow,” to the murder of director/actress Adrienne Shelley in the run-up to “Waitress” last year.

Web movie campaigns often rely on movie fan sites to whip up and maintain interest in the online initiatives. “We usually help kick off campaigns by spreading the word, and fans take it from there,” said Mirko Parlevliet of Coming Soon Media LP, which operates sites like comingsoon.net and superherohype.com.

Mr. Parlevliet said the viral campaign for “The Dark Knight” “was very detailed and got a great response from the fans,” adding that fans were rewarded for participating by gaining access to trailers, posters and photos. Still, he says, “I personally don’t think these games reach an audience beyond the Internet-savvy fans. … Also, [the studios] should concentrate more on a world-wide audience instead of just the U.S. fans.”

Warner Bros. released a statement yesterday expressing its condolences on Mr. Ledger’s death but didn’t comment on the status of the film, which is in post-production in Los Angeles. It is possible that some of Mr. Ledger’s sound-recording work was incomplete.

An executive at a rival studio said that while “The Dark Knight” is basically a big-budget movie with tragedy now attached to it, it would be unwise to change the marketing strategy or campaign at this point. “The best thing that could happen is that all this marketing stuff just goes on and the movie and the campaign don’t turn into some kind of weird grave marker,” he said.

this author wrote the influential graphic novel This author wrote the influential graphic novel “The Dark Knight Returns.”

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers.com and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Google+ YouTube 

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Norm S. -- Meet In the Lobby January 24, 2008 at 3:36 pm

I agree that staying on track might be the best solution — but pull back on the exposure for a month or so. They may even want to minimize marketing that keys in on the Joker so aggressively (not the graffiti games, but the stuff where his face is front and center).

The studio would have had a real conundrum on their hands if his death occurred right when audiences were flocking to I Am Legend, and seeing Ledger’s Joker in the Dark Knight film clip before the movie.

Reply

2 Norm S. -- Meet In the Lobby January 24, 2008 at 3:36 pm

I agree that staying on track might be the best solution — but pull back on the exposure for a month or so. They may even want to minimize marketing that keys in on the Joker so aggressively (not the graffiti games, but the stuff where his face is front and center).

The studio would have had a real conundrum on their hands if his death occurred right when audiences were flocking to I Am Legend, and seeing Ledger’s Joker in the Dark Knight film clip before the movie.

Reply

3 Eric Melin January 25, 2008 at 1:14 am

Yeah, I never got to see that. When I saw “Legend,” there were no trailers. I imagine its still playing before it now, huh?

Reply

4 Eric Melin January 25, 2008 at 1:14 am

Yeah, I never got to see that. When I saw “Legend,” there were no trailers. I imagine its still playing before it now, huh?

Reply

5 Mike Sanderson January 25, 2008 at 9:36 am

I belive that by delibratley hiding Ledger’s take on such an iconic role, will be under estimated. We should display the movie for its full potential. Like I and other Dark Knight fans will tell you, Ledger placed his heart and soul into 2008′s Batman sequel, and developed a very clear understanding of how to take on a character with villainous qualities. If you research into other actors, such as Brandon Lee, you will also discover that they were cast as much darker and more sinister roles before their death. An amazing preformance shouldn’t be agnored. Please do not get my opinions wrong, I fell low when i heard the tragic news of Ledger’s death, but hopefully, for Heath Ledger, Warner Bros will waste and throw away something that means so much to world.

(PLEASE, IF YOURE A TRUE HEATH LEDGER FAN, COPY AND PASTE THIS COMMENT TO EVERY BOARD AND EMAIL ENTRY WEBSITE YOU CAN, TO EXPRESS YOUR OPINION OF THE MOVIE TOO)

Reply

6 Mike Sanderson January 25, 2008 at 9:36 am

I belive that by delibratley hiding Ledger’s take on such an iconic role, will be under estimated. We should display the movie for its full potential. Like I and other Dark Knight fans will tell you, Ledger placed his heart and soul into 2008′s Batman sequel, and developed a very clear understanding of how to take on a character with villainous qualities. If you research into other actors, such as Brandon Lee, you will also discover that they were cast as much darker and more sinister roles before their death. An amazing preformance shouldn’t be agnored. Please do not get my opinions wrong, I fell low when i heard the tragic news of Ledger’s death, but hopefully, for Heath Ledger, Warner Bros will waste and throw away something that means so much to world.

(PLEASE, IF YOURE A TRUE HEATH LEDGER FAN, COPY AND PASTE THIS COMMENT TO EVERY BOARD AND EMAIL ENTRY WEBSITE YOU CAN, TO EXPRESS YOUR OPINION OF THE MOVIE TOO)

Reply

7 Eric Melin January 25, 2008 at 9:55 am

Interesting news about another film and his possible pneumonia…

From CNN.com–

Before he died, Heath Ledger had two films in production: “The Dark Knight,” the latest chapter in the Batman saga, and “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” the latest film from director Terry Gilliam.
Gilliam’s film, which concerns prime Gilliam material such as a magic mirror, a traveling show, the devil, and a rougish character played by Ledger, is more problematic.

The cast had just completed filming in London, which actor Christopher Plummer characterized as “cold as bejesus” to Entertainment Weekly.
Plummer said that Ledger had a “terrible, lingering bug in London, and he couldn’t sleep at all. We all — I thought he’d probably got walking pneumonia,” he told EW.

Ledger and Gilliam had become close during the making of Gilliam’s “The Brothers Grimm” and Ledger had plans to become a feature director himself, several sources have reported. The actor had directed a handful of music videos, including one for Ben Harper, with whom he formed a record company.

Last month, Gilliam told Variety, “He’s going to be a much better director than I will ever be.”

Plummer told EW that “Parnassus” had “an enormous amount left to do.” After a short break, the cast was going to re-convene in Vancouver, British Columbia, primarily for technical and special-effects work.

“God knows what’s going to happen now,” Plummer said.

Reply

8 Eric Melin January 25, 2008 at 9:55 am

Interesting news about another film and his possible pneumonia…

From CNN.com–

Before he died, Heath Ledger had two films in production: “The Dark Knight,” the latest chapter in the Batman saga, and “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” the latest film from director Terry Gilliam.
Gilliam’s film, which concerns prime Gilliam material such as a magic mirror, a traveling show, the devil, and a rougish character played by Ledger, is more problematic.

The cast had just completed filming in London, which actor Christopher Plummer characterized as “cold as bejesus” to Entertainment Weekly.
Plummer said that Ledger had a “terrible, lingering bug in London, and he couldn’t sleep at all. We all — I thought he’d probably got walking pneumonia,” he told EW.

Ledger and Gilliam had become close during the making of Gilliam’s “The Brothers Grimm” and Ledger had plans to become a feature director himself, several sources have reported. The actor had directed a handful of music videos, including one for Ben Harper, with whom he formed a record company.

Last month, Gilliam told Variety, “He’s going to be a much better director than I will ever be.”

Plummer told EW that “Parnassus” had “an enormous amount left to do.” After a short break, the cast was going to re-convene in Vancouver, British Columbia, primarily for technical and special-effects work.

“God knows what’s going to happen now,” Plummer said.

Reply

9 Michelle K January 26, 2008 at 12:35 am

I think the marketing folks at Warner Bros and the film folks shouldn’t change their strategy for the film. As tragic as Heath’s death is, the work he was a part of should continue. Ten years from now, this film may be remembered as the last work he was in, but if anything, this would enhance the value of the movie. Downplaying his role would only disrespect his memory, esp one in which he truly enjoyed and was proud of. Also, fans of Heath will come to watch, so this will be a blockbuster for Batman fans and Heath fans alike. It would be nice to see a tribute to him at the credits, though. Just one person’s opinion.

Reply

10 Michelle K January 26, 2008 at 12:35 am

I think the marketing folks at Warner Bros and the film folks shouldn’t change their strategy for the film. As tragic as Heath’s death is, the work he was a part of should continue. Ten years from now, this film may be remembered as the last work he was in, but if anything, this would enhance the value of the movie. Downplaying his role would only disrespect his memory, esp one in which he truly enjoyed and was proud of. Also, fans of Heath will come to watch, so this will be a blockbuster for Batman fans and Heath fans alike. It would be nice to see a tribute to him at the credits, though. Just one person’s opinion.

Reply

11 Mike Sanderson 08 July 14, 2008 at 6:49 am

Apologies for typing my comment incorrectly. I meant to say that Warner Bros should NOT waste something like this

Reply

12 Mike Sanderson 08 July 14, 2008 at 6:49 am

Apologies for typing my comment incorrectly. I meant to say that Warner Bros should NOT waste something like this

Reply

Leave a Comment

 

Previous post:

Next post: